New regulator Opra jumps swiftly into the pensions fray

The new pensions regulator Opra, which opened for business last week, has already received its first case. It is to look into the collapse of a South Wirral pension fund that left pensioners with as little as 14 per cent of the funds.

The Department of Trade and Industry referred the case to the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority after questions about the collapse were asked in the House of Commons and the role of the professional advisers to the pensions trustee was questioned.

The occupational pension scheme for Ellesmere Port-based construction firm HH Robertson, the HH Robertson Pension Trust, advised by partner David Griffiths of Addleshaw Booth & Co, is being wound up with funding of less than 50 per cent. HH Robertson's assets were sold to British Steel in January for £7.4m.

The company went into liquidation two weeks ago, but was already being wound up. Some 150 workers will lose their jobs.

Ellesmere Port and Neston MP Andrew Miller told the Commons last month that the value of the pension fund fell sharply over three years, from holding a surplus of £4.4m in 1989, to a deficit of £2.4m by October 1992.

He said the actuaries to trustees Sedgwick Noble Lowndes only advised HH Robertson managing director Ian Wood of the problem on Christmas Eve, 1991. Even after this, said Miller, a holiday on company contributions to the scheme continued until April 1992.

He claimed HH Robertson also transferred all its remaining assets, including land and buildings, to a company incorporated in Scotland, one month before the sale of its other assets to British Steel.

Miller said: “[Ian Wood] told me this was done in the best interests of the creditors, especially the pension fund.” But, he said the pension fund did not have a charge on the Scottish company. The organisations which do have a charge on the new company are the Bank of Scotland and two companies under the control of Ian Wood and Ric Wharton, owner of HH Robertson's parent company.

Griffiths told The Lawyer his firm had only acted for the trustees since 1993. He said the trust fund “had no way of being involved” in the creation of the new Scottish company since it was a transaction carried out by HH Robertson.

Griffiths claimed the trustee was fully independent of HH Robertson.

“There is nothing that this firm has to hide,” he added.